Eight-year study casts serious doubt on future food security

An extensive study designed to simulate the growing conditions of the future has cast significant doubt on widely held assumptions about the impact of climate change on food production, suggesting that we will face significant crop failures far sooner than previously thought.

The study, which is published today in the journal Nature Plants, saw researchers from the University of Illinois conduct an eight year-long study of soybeans that were grown outdoors in a carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere.  This was designed to mimic the higher atmospheric CO₂ concentrations that we are projected to experience by 2050.

It had been thought that the increased levels of CO₂ would balance future water shortages, by prompting the plans to reduce the size of the pores in their leaves and so reducing gaseous exchange with the atmosphere. This would reduce the amount of water the plants needed from the soil, resulting in crops that were only minimally affected by climate change.

“If you read the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports and if you read the scientific literature on the subject for the last 30 years, the concluding statement is nearly always that elevated carbon dioxide will ameliorate drought stress in crops,” explained lead author Andrew Leakey, an associate professor of plant biology at the University of Illinois.

However, the study found a flaw in that premise, in that it only works in wetter growing seasons.

“[The theory] was consistent with what we saw with our own experiments the first four years, the relatively wet years,” added Leakey. “But when the growing seasons were hot and dry, that pattern broke down.”

The Soybean Free Air Concentration Enrichment facility, which allowed researchers to simulate the CO₂-rich environment of 2050. Image courtesy of Don Hamerman

The Soybean Free Air Concentration Enrichment facility, which allowed researchers to simulate the CO₂-rich environment of 2050. Image courtesy of Don Hamerman

The researchers created the CO₂-rich environment in real farm fields using a technology known as the Soybean Free Air Concentration Enrichment Facility. This featured sensors that that can measure wind speed and direction, prompting the regulated release of gases to simulate higher concentrations of CO₂.

This allowed the researchers to determine that plants grown in a hot, dry CO₂-rich environment needed more water than plants growing under the same conditions but with current atmospheric CO₂ levels; the opposite of what previous research had suggested.

“All of the model predictions up to this point were assuming that in 2050, elevated CO₂ was going to give us a 15% increase in yield over what we had at the beginning of this century,” Leakey said. “And what we’re seeing is that as it gets hotter and drier, that number diminishes to zero. No gain.

“What we think is happening is that early in the growing season, when the plant has enough water, it’s able to photosynthesize more as a result of the higher CO2 levels. It’s got more sugars to play with, it grows more, it creates all this extra leaf area. But when it gets dry, the plant has overextended itself, so later in the season it’s now using more water.”

soybean-crop

The research has significant implications for the management of food security in the future, with soybeans being the fourth biggest food crop in the world by area harvested.

In addition to providing a valuable source of protein for nonmeat eaters, they are used in a wide array of foods, oils and sauces, particularly in East Asia where the crop has formed a significant part of the diet since at least 7,000 BC.

Soybeans are also used extensively for livestock feed, making their importance for food security even greater.

Only 6% of space enthusiasts would like to live in the first low-Earth orbit settlements

A new survey has found that only 6% of respondents would be happy to live in a proposed Equatorial Low Earth Orbit (ELEO) settlement, where humans live in a small cruise ship-like space station at a similar orbit to the ISS.

Four conditions were set for respondents to assess and while at least 30% said they agree with at least one of them, the number shrank significantly when it came to those who could accept all the conditions.

These were that the settlement itself would require permanent residence, would be no bigger than a large cruise ship, would contain no more than 500 people and would require residents to be willing to devote at least 75% of their wealth to move in.

The example settlement used in the survey is Kalpana Two, pictured, a conceptual cylindrical space habitat visualised by Brian Versteeg. Measuring 110 m x 110m it would rotate to provide simulated gravity on the “ground” and zero-gravity near the cylinder’s core where occupants can ‘fly’, and would be capable of housing 500 – 1,000 people

The study, conducted by researchers from San Jose State University (SJSU) and the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) sought to assess the desirability of such a settlement. Previous similar studies had suggested early space settlements would need to be significantly smaller than believed, and located far closer to Earth.

The research was conducted via an Internet survey made available to the public between 8 January 2016 and 17 June 2016. The survey, using Qualtrics software, received 1,075 responses and was distributed via an email list, social media and spac- related organisations. It should therefore be noted that the respondents are not representative of the general population: 95% actually identified as space enthusiasts.

“95% of respondents were self-described space enthusiasts and 81% were male. 70% were from North America and 20% from Europe,” the study authors Al Globus, from SJSU, and Tom Marotta, from AST, wrote in the research paper.

“This is not surprising as the authors made no attempt to select a random sample of any particular group, but rather to simply distribute the survey as widely as we could.”

Kalpana Two, the conceptual space station the survey was based on. Images courtesy of Brian Versteeg

The paper itself is rather enthusiastic about the 6% figure, pointing out that while it is a low percentage of those who responded, if considering it 6% of those who globally identify as “space enthusiasts” there are likely more than enough to fill these early settlements.  The authors also acknowledge that such a number is not all that surprising given the demands of the move.

However, while the enthusiasm and optimism is laudable, it’s worth noting that those principally willing to give up the most were small in number and tended to fall on the wealthier spectrum. So while the possibility of the project exists, it seems that, as with all commercial space projects so far, it would principally have to cater to the rich.

Moreover, when responding to the main attraction of life in space, “the most common remark was simply that it was ‘in space’ not any particular characteristic of living in space”. There seems in the responses to be a certain enthusiasm that may not hold up in the actual moment of decision.

The fact that people like the idea of living in space is no surprise; the survey however does little to assuage the realities of the situation. Enthusiasm is promising, however the main result of this survey seems to be that blind optimism is only truly backed up by vast amounts of money.

Life expectancy to break the 90-year barrier by 2030

New research has revealed that the average life expectancy is set to increase in many countries by 2030 and, in South Korea specifically, will improve so much as to exceed an average of 90 years. The study analysed long-term data on mortality and longevity trends to predict how life expectancy will change from now until 2030.

The study was led by scientists from Imperial College London in collaboration with the World Health Organization. Looking at 35 industrialised nations, the team highlighted South Korea as a peak for life expectancy; predicting expectancy from birth, they estimate that a baby girl born in South Korea in 2030 will expect to live 90.8 years, while men are expected to live to be 84.1 years.

Scientists once thought an average life expectancy of over 90 was impossible, according to Professor Majid Ezzati, lead researcher from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London:

“We repeatedly hear that improvements in human longevity are about to come to an end. Many people used to believe that 90 years is the upper limit for life expectancy, but this research suggests we will break the 90-year barrier,” he said.

“I don’t believe we’re anywhere near the upper limit of life expectancy -if there even is one.”

South Korea leads in life expectancy. Image courtesy of jedydjah. Featured image courtesy of Carey and Kacey Jordan

Ezzati explained that the high expectancy for South Korean lives was likely due to a number of factors including good nutrition in childhood, low blood pressure, low levels of smoking, good access to healthcare, and uptake of new medical knowledge and technologies. It is likely that, by 2030, South Korea will have the highest life expectancy in the world.

Elsewhere, French women and Swiss men are predicted to lead expectancies in Europe, with 88.6 years and nearly 84 years respectively. The UK is expected to average 85.3 years for women (21st in the table of countries studied) and 82.5 years for men (14th in the table).

The study included both high-income countries and emerging economies. Among the high-income countries, the US was found to have the lowest predicted life expectancy at birth. Averaging similar to Croatia and Mexico, the researchers suggested this was due to a number of factors including a lack of universal healthcare, as well as the highest child and maternal mortality rate, homicide rate and obesity among high-income countries.

A lack of universal healthcare is one of the reasons the US trails behind in life expectancy. Image courtesy of HSeverson

Notably, the research also suggests that the life expectancy gap between men and women is closing and that a large factor in increasing expectancy is due in no small part to older sections of the population living longer than before.

Such increased longevity is not without issue, however, as countries may not be prepared to support an ageing population.

“The fact that we will continue to live longer means we need to think about strengthening the health and social care systems to support an ageing population with multiple health needs,” added Ezzati.

“This is the opposite of what is being done in the era of austerity. We also need to think about whether current pension systems will support us, or if we need to consider working into later life.”